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. "Runaway Jury"

Courtroom dramas are a natural. The essence of conflict is staged in courtroom settings. Witness the steady stream of TV fare based on that principle, much of it becoming hit series. But when the story comes from the pen and mind of one of the top novelists with a legal background, namely bestseller John Grisham ("The Rainmaker", The Pelican Brief"), a whole new depth of character detail and legal machination enters the contest for justice.

The seed that gets the root of this drama to flourish happens well before the events depicted; and they aren't revealed until the last act. But we know it has something to do with jury tampering. That it's a bit far-fetched doesn't detract from its effect of holding you in tight deliberation as layers of deception are suspensefully stripped away.

The case involves the culpability of gun manufacturers in the random shootings their easy availability makes possible. A young mother and now widow brings a case against a gun maker patterned on Lorcin Engineering, a supplier of cheap, "saturday night special" handguns and representative of a corporate consortium with the power to have withstood all previous legal attacks on their healthy business."

The setting is New Orleans, a gun lobby hotbed, so all aboard have dusted off their southern accents, most vividly, Dustin Hoffman who plays crusading attorney Wendell Rohr representing the widow, and his far better paid counterpart across the aisle for the defense, Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison).

Understanding that it's a case the gun boys can't afford to lose, Cable enlists the most unscrupulous and effective jury tamp..., er, "consultant" that money can buy, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) who, in turn, applies his expertise in the effort to buy the jury and guarantee the outcome. And, guarantee, he must, as he continually needs to reassure his gun company client as doubts come into the picture.

We go through voir dire, that process by which a jury is selected, with acceptance or rejection by both sides, each of whom have made their clandestine study of all potential jurors. They don't yet suspect how outmaneuvered they're going to be despite all their privacy invasions.

Almost everyone who has received that invitation in the mail to serve on a jury knows that the first thing you think of is how to get around it. It's no surprise then, when Nick Easter (John Cusack) shows all the signs of avoidance. But, when he's thrown a few questions by the judge, he slyly challenges the jurist to reject him. And, when he tells his girlfriend and accomplice Marlee (Rachel Weisz) that he's been selected, the joy and relief are evident. More here, shall we say, than meets the eye?

Sly is the word as these parties clash in pursuing their agendas. For Nick and Marlee it would seem it's all about money. When it also becomes evident to the attorneys that Nick is exerting control over the jury from within, Marlee offers both sides the same terms: $10 Million for the verdict. But the question of their real motive is in cool reserve as the game plays on.

This is strong mental combat for all participants, and as portrayed, nearly guarantees a full grip on audience attention even when it may be doubting some of the dramatic suppositions. The personalities of the jury members are questionable as a representation of reality and the premise that a jury can be so manipulated is almost indefensible from the git go. In reality we have seen such ill-guided control only when the jury is so homogenous as to be complicit in a community enhancing outcome in the face of conflicting evidence.

There might be compromises in the process of jury selection, but there's no evidence here of casting compromises. Veterans Hackman and Hoffman play in their best zones of character effectiveness while John Cusack, loving intellectually devious material in all outings, plays also in rich filfullment of his greatest strengths. Weisz is both adventurously capable and uniquely delicious on the eyes.

Bruce McGill is held within an appropiately limited emoting space behind his judge's bench; Jeremy Piven is tight as Lawrence Green, a Rohr (Hoffman) associate; Jennifer Beals is almost silent as a juror.

In the final analysis, director Gary Fleder ("Don't Say a Word") and screenwriter Brian Koppelman's blatant side-taking in the dispute through their characterizations of the players in the case may be their film's biggest failure. It will surely seem that way to those who might not be so quick to condemn the gun manufacturers in cases like this one. But, as a subject for drama, and despite the presiding incredulity of the premise, this one does pack some heat.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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John Cusack and Rachel Weisz
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